Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha
Are the three outer Refuges.
In taking them as my shelter,
By putting my whole trust in them.
I gain joy and fulfilment.
Fortune will come, if you take refuge here.

The Guru, the Patron Buddha and the Dakinis
Are the three inner Refuges.
In taking them as my shelter,
By putting my whole trust in them,
I gain joy and fulfilment.
Fortune will come, if you take refuge here.

The Nadis, Prana and Bindu
Are the three secret Refuges.
In taking them as my shelter,
By putting my whole trust in them,
I gain joy and fulfilment.
Fortune will come, if you take refuge here.

Form, Voidness and Non-distinction
Are the three real Refuges.
By putting my whole trust in them,
I gain joy and fulfilment.
Fortune will come, if you take refuge here.

If you do not look to the Refuges,
Who will shield you from eternal suffering?

Mila Grubum MILAREPA

Vajrayana, the 'third stream' of Buddhist thought closely allied with Mahayana, is mysterious and often alien to outside observers. Arising independently of the Buddhist monastic tradition, its rituals and practices can seem bizarre, especially to those who have not learnt to discern the fine line between fact, symbol and that unseen reality to which symbols point. Perhaps the most mysterious of Vajrayana lineages is that which began with Tilopa and passed to Naropa and his disciple Marpa, who took it to Tibet. And Marpa's chief disciple, Milarepa, is the most enigmatic figure in the line. His life is a summation of the heights to which the human spirit can rise and the depths to which it can plunge. It draws together vivid contrasts that the mind prefers to see kept separate, and it shows how intermingled good and evil, insight and perversity, white and black magic, can become. If Milarepa's life is a study of degradation made larger than life, it is equally a story of unsurpassed spiritual triumph.

According to the namtar or life story composed to help individuals towards Enlightenment, Milarepa was born in A.D. 1052, a descendant of the Khyungpo clan and the Josey family. His ancestors included the son of a Nyingmapa lama who was esteemed in Upper Tsang for his capacity to subdue demons, and his father was a trader who had become affluent in Kya Ngatsa far to the west of Lhasa in Gungthang, above the Tsangpo River (which becomes the sacred Brahmaputra when it flows into India). His father named him Good News because he had heard of his birth whilst engaged in trading business at Tiger Point. Milarepa grew up in a warm and loving family, replete with the relatively luxurious life of country gentry. Although his upbringing and education were ordinary, his childhood and early youth were marked by precocious psychic sensitivity, a keen mind and a deep devotion to his parents. He also possessed a marked spiritual inclination which remained largely latent but was never wholly obscured. Even as a child he was aware that, though his family was respected, their prosperity was envied by those who were jealous of the success of people who had moved to Kya Ngatsa from elsewhere. When Milarepa's father discovered that he was dying of a wasting disease, he established a trust for his wife and son, making his brother and his wife trustees.

Milarepa's father died and soon the bereft family discovered the enormity of the hatred in those who were less affluent. His aunt and uncle provided little support in the name of preserving the trust, and former servants began to mock them. Greed conquered whatever worthy impulses the trustees may have had, and eventually they claimed that all Milarepa's inheritance had always been theirs, given on loan to Milarepa's father while he lived. Rather than stoop to throwing herself on the mercy of her husband's relatives, Milarepa's mother determined to take up the life of a beggar, but her own relatives managed to provide enough for her to maintain a small homestead by spinning and weaving. But she resolved not only to survive and to provide for her children, but also to avenge the wrongs she had suffered. Whilst Milarepa's sister, Peta, spun and wove and begged when circumstances compelled it, he was sent to a renowned monk to learn reading.

Milarepa's first teacher was a magician of the Nyingmapa or Ancient Order, which traces its origins to Padmasambhava. He possessed the serpent powers of the Eight Nagas, which include the capacity to change one's form at will, to communicate exactly what one wishes, to maintain full awareness and to expand the mind to include many worlds, and to serve all living beings. Milarepa thus gathered some sense of the mystery and depth of meditative practices while he learnt to read. When he returned to his mother, she sold half her little homestead and bought turquoise and a white horse for Milarepa, and then she commanded him to seek out a teacher of magic. After some travel and enquiry Milarepa went to the region of Ü, sold his turquoise and horse for gold and sought out Yungton Trogyel, who lived in the region of Yarlung. Offering everything to Yungton Trogyel, Milarepa became his disciple. In time, the lama learnt his story and was moved by his determination to serve his mother. Although concerned about Milarepa's strong will and his mother's immense hatred, he sent Milarepa to Yonten Gyatso, who lived in Nub Khulung, where he learnt the magical art of destruction.

Milarepa undertook a two-week retreat for spells and incantations. Just as his greedy aunt and uncle had filled their house with guests for the wedding of their son, the house was torn apart by elemental forces and collapsed, killing thirty-five people and sparing only the heartless couple. Terrified villagers recognized the power of malevolent magic and suspected its source, and they prevented the pair from seeking revenge, instead giving Milarepa's mother additional land to pacify her. She was not to be placated, however, and so she sold the land for gold and sent it to Milarepa with the demand that he do more damage. He went back to Yungton Trogyel, gave him the gold and learnt to control the weather. Then he made his way back to his village, and from a cave in which he secreted himself he brought down a fierce hailstorm upon the fields just before the beginning of harvest. Escaping with some difficulty, he made his way back to his teacher.

Nothing could be the same for Milarepa thereafter. He had fulfilled his mother's wishes and thereby discharged what he had perceived as his duty, but despite his moral blindness and warped sense of justice, he understood the inexorable working of the Law of Karma. He saw that evil begets evil and that his own actions, however he might rationalize them, were unspeakably terrible and would rebound on him.

I was filled with remorse for the evil I had done by magic and by hailstorms. My longing for the Dharma so obsessed me that I forgot to eat. If I went out, I wanted to stay in. If I stayed in, I wanted to go out. At night sleep escaped me. I dared not confess my sadness or my longing for emancipation to the lama. While I remained in his service, I ardently asked myself again and again how I might practise the true teaching.

During this period his teacher's wealthiest patron died and his teacher fell into a deep reflection upon Karma and the Dharma. When he told Milarepa that he had decided to retire and begin working to reverse his own black karma, Milarepa asked for help. Yungton Trogyel told him to seek out Rongton Lhaga for instruction.

When Milarepa met Rongton Lhaga, he confessed his whole life and threw himself upon the lama's compassion. Rongton Lhaga told him that the deepest meditation involved direct insight and release from all hindrances, provided one's karma permitted its perfect practice. So exhilarating was Milarepa's sense of having escaped a fatal burden that he ignored the caveat and went to sleep believing that he was already a Bodhisattva. The next morning, however, Rongton Lhaga summoned him and explained that he knew his would-be disciple's mind and, because of such thoughts, he could not teach him. He told Milarepa to journey to Lhotrak and find Marpa the Translator. The two were connected by ancient bonds of karma, he said, and only Marpa could instruct him in the Dharma. Milarepa set out, and Marpa divined in a vision that his greatest disciple and most difficult challenge were approaching. When Milarepa found Marpa, he threw himself in desperation at Marpa's feet, but his teacher seemed cold and hard, offering him either food and shelter or the Teaching, but not both. Milarepa chose the Teaching, but then Marpa demanded that he exercise his magic to qualify: he was to send hail on the fields of those who persecuted Marpa's disciples and sow discord amongst the mountaineers who robbed them. Milarepa quickly did both and then asked Marpa to teach the Dharma. Marpa replied:

Ha! Is it to reward your many crimes that I went to India at the risk of my life? . . . Restore the harvest and heal the mountaineers. After that I will teach you. But never come back if you cannot do this.

Thus Milarepa discovered that instruction in the Dharma is not easy.

Rather than comforting Milarepa or assuring him that his fresh intentions would overcome his wilfulness, emotional intensity and perversity, Marpa brought them to the surface, where they had to be confronted. He had Milarepa build a round tower from stones he gathered, but then ordered the half-constructed edifice torn down – and the stones replaced where they had been found – on the grounds that he had not sufficiently considered the matter. Next he had his disciple construct a semicircular tower in another place, only to be demolished because Marpa had supposedly been intoxicated when he gave the order. Then he gave instructions for the building of a triangular tower, only to rescind them when the tower was half built, this time denying that he had any memory of giving them. Finally, he had a nine-storey tower built, which after numerous false starts was almost completed. Before it was finished, Marpa's actions, reminiscent of extreme forms of Zen instruction, convinced Milarepa that he would never receive the Teachings. Not once did he blame Marpa, but rather thought that his frustration was entirely due to his own past deeds. With a heavy heart Milarepa left to find instruction under one of Marpa's disciples. Marpa finished the tower and then summoned his disciples and Milarepa to its consecration. There he forbade anyone to teach Milarepa, and this broke the reformed sorcerer's heart. Only when he was on the verge of killing himself did Marpa appear to relent. With Milarepa prostrate before his feet, Marpa explained that his seemingly arbitrary actions and simulated anger were devices used to initiate Milarepa's initial purification. The magician had proved himself worthy to be a disciple.

Marpa had the Chakrasamvara mandala set up, the yidam or tutelary deity of which represents transcendental wisdom in the form of shunyata, or the voidness of luminous clarity. He then initiated Milarepa through this mandala and at a critical moment pointed to the vault of the sky, where the deity appeared in the living Akasha, space. Milarepa was given the initiation name Pal Zhepe Dorje – Resplendent Laughing Vajra – by the yidam Chakrasamvara. And in him was awakened the fire of tummo, which is hidden in the tsa-u-ma (sushumna) in the psycho-spiritual nerve channels. Milarepa went into secluded meditation for eleven months, after which he confessed to his teacher:

I understand that in this body lies the vital choice between profit and loss, relating to eternal happiness or misery on the border between good and evil. Relying upon your power of compassion as the venerable guide of sentient beings, I am hopefully endeavouring to achieve emancipation from the ocean of existential bondage, from which escape is very difficult. . . .
From this point, progressively ascending the Path, it is necessary to observe one's vows as carefully as one guards one's eyes. Even in failure, remedies must be employed. By not seeking one's own liberation on the path of Hinayana, one develops bodhichitta, which seeks to work towards the liberation of all sentient beings.

Even though the namtar which gives the life of Milarepa explains his efforts in meditative absorption at considerable length, little of the inner realm of experience is intimated. Milarepa had entered that subtle path which leads far beyond the reach of descriptive language and the range of discursive consciousness.

Eventually, Marpa held a great ritual feast at which he gave each of his chief disciples a particular charge and teaching. Milarepa was given the teaching of the fire of tummo, whose danger is as great as its promise, and both match the extreme energies Milarepa had already summoned in the wrong direction. Milarepa's will, originally cultivated to a remarkable degree of intensity, had to be channelled along a path equal to it despite the risks involved. Marpa sent his disciples across the high Tibetan plains and mountain fastnesses, but Milarepa remained near him in secluded meditation for some months. Then, as Marpa prepared to visit his teacher, Naropa, in India, Milarepa felt the need to return to his village. His journey was not a happy one, for when he arrived he found that his mother had died in wretched poverty and that his sister, Peta, was disinherited and impoverished. His greedy uncle and aunt tried to kill him, the villagers hated him and he had to threaten – though he resolved not to use – sorcery to make them withdraw. After meditating to the point of starvation near his mother's abandoned house, which was now his, he was visited by his sister. Enjoining her to follow the way of Dharma, he gave his small inheritance to his aunt and then decided to leave. Though befriended by his original tutor and nourished by his admiring sister, his homecoming served only to teach him the utter delusion of Samsara and of all attachments. Whilst meditating upon this insight, he found various supernormal powers released in him, and so he flew to the Cave of the Eagle's Shadow for total privacy. Having discerned the range and limit of his inestimable powers, he flew back to Horse Tooth White Rock near his village and decided to enter the world for the sake of sentient beings.

Suddenly his yidam spoke to him:

Devote yourself wholly to meditation in this life, in accordance with Marpa's instructions. There is nothing greater than serving the teachings of Buddha and thereby saving sentient beings through meditation.

Milarepa realized that he could never touch the feet of his teacher in dwelling without distraction in the external world. Yet through meditation he could serve all beings in a way that would honour Marpa. Thus, it is said that Milarepa knew he could never be as great as his teacher, though he is also revered for his greatness in a different direction. Milarepa remained near his village and was periodically tended by his sister, who, though admiring him, was inconsolable regarding her lot and had little sympathy for Dharma. In the end Milarepa won her over and she became detached from the world and, more importantly, from her own bitter memories. When Milarepa's uncle died, his aunt was filled with remorse for the life she had lived. She sought out Milarepa and begged his forgiveness, and eventually he instructed her in Dharma and she became a yogini renowned for her meditation.

Having completely righted the relationships which had been so twisted in his youth, Milarepa now freely renounced all concern with the world and entered a series of retreats for meditation. His luminous powers of absorption became so strong that numerous disciples were attracted to him, and he instructed each according to his capacities and his karma. Knowing from experience that the interplay of the forces of knowledge and light with the demonic forces of ignorance and evil was precarious and intense, he focussed attention on the boundary between them. Where ordinary consciousness would recognize nothing at all, Milarepa realized that in the interstices between light and darkness was to be seen the reflection of the highest truth. He instructed his famous disciple Gampopa by assimilating this insight to the language of the bardo, the intermediate state between death and rebirth.

Sentient beings in Samsara
And all Buddhas in Nirvana
Are equal in nature, the same in essence:
Son, this is the bardo of view.

The manifesting red and white (positive and
negative) forces
And the indescribable essence of mind
Are the true non-differentiated state:
Son, this is the bardo of practice.

The myriad forms of illusion
And the non-arising mind itself
Are one, not two, in the Self-existent:
Son, this is the bardo of action. . . .

The five tainted skandhas
And the pure Buddhas in the five directions
Are one in the yoga of perfection,
The state of non-discrimination.
Son, this is the bardo of the Path.

Self-benefit is reflected in changeless Dharmakaya,
Altruism in Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya,
Yet in their primordial state they are one:
Son, this is the bardo of Trikaya.

The impure body which comes from the womb
And the pure form of Buddha's body
Are one in the great light of bardo:
Son, this is the bardo of attainment.

The highest reality, briefly experienced in the post-mortem state, is everywhere present but unnoticed so long as one is even minimally caught in the pairs of opposites.

After instructing a number of disciples over the years, Milarepa felt that his mission was finished. A monk, Geshe Tsakpuhwa, took pride in his learning and mocked the humble ascetic when they met at a feast. Milarepa responded with a song, which ran in part:

Having meditated on my lama,
I forgot those who are influential and powerful.
Having meditated on my yidam,
I forgot the coarse world of the senses.
Having meditated on the teaching of the secret
I forgot the books of dialectic.
Having maintained pure awareness,
I forgot the illusions of ignorance. . . .
Having made a monastery within my body,
I forgot the monastery outside.
Having embraced the spirit rather than the letter,
I forgot how to play with words.

The monk was furious and planned to kill Milarepa. He prepared a draught of poison and paid a woman to give it to the ascetic. Milarepa's clairvoyance revealed all to him, but he initially refused the drink, forcing Geshe Tsakpuhwa to pay her a handsome sum to try again. Only then did Milarepa accept the drink, but he told the woman that he knew of the plot. When in remorse she begged to be allowed to drink the poison herself, he refused, saying that the time for leaving the world had come, and drained the cup while swearing her to silence until he had died. He also told her to keep the monk's bribe and to seek out the Dharma. Then Milarepa called his disciples together and gave them instruction:

Strive unceasingly for purification,
Banish ignorance and gather merit.
Doing so, you will not only see
The Dharma-loving gods come to listen,
You will even perceive within yourselves
The Dharmakaya, holiest and highest of all gods.
Seeing that, you will then behold
The whole truth of Samsara and Nirvana
And you will free yourselves from karma.

The wicked monk came to see that Milarepa was indeed enlightened and, prostrating before him, confessed his evil deed. Milarepa instructed him in the Dharma and sent him away to work to reverse the karma that no hand can still.

When Milarepa announced his impending death, he added, "There is no reality in my sickness; there is no reality in my death", and explained that he simply manifested both. He sent his most energetic monks ahead to Chuwar, but both those who accompanied him and those who went ahead found that he had preceded them, though they were with him at all times. Thus he showed the illusory nature of all form. When all his followers had gathered in amazement at Chuwar, he delivered his final instructions:

The practice of the secret path is the shortest way.
Realization of emptiness engenders compassion.
Compassion abolishes difference of self and other.
If there is no duality between oneself and others,
One fulfils the aim of sentient beings.
He who recognizes the need of others will discover me.
He who finds me will achieve Enlightenment.
To me, to Buddha and to the disciples,
You should pray as one, thinking of them as one.

Entering a state of profound meditative absorption, he passed into Nirvana at the age of eighty-four.

Though many signs and wonders followed his passing, and certain classes of gods and goddesses appeared, there was no marvel as great as the life he had lived and offered to others as an example of what one should not do and of what should be done. He embodied the spirit of his teaching to his closest disciples:

Samsara and Nirvana are a single reality
In the state of ultimate awareness.
To perceive ultimate reality,
I mark everything with mahamudra, the great
seal of emptiness.
This is the quintessence of non-duality.